Will state and county officials approve proposed bridge over troubled water?

Will state and county officials approve proposed bridge over troubled water?

- in Environment, Top Story
An inset map of where the bridge would be constructed. See the full map below. (Source: Wake Stone application)

Company proposing controversial Wake quarry wants to build truck bridge over polluted creek; environmental advocates seek a public hearing

Wake Stone, the company behind a controversial quarry expansion next to Umstead State Park, has significantly changed its mining permit application to include a bridge over Crabtree Creek, a troubled tributary of the Neuse River.

The plan was included in a modified application that Wake Stone submitted to the NC Department of Environmental Quality on April 8.

According to the company, the bridge would be built over a portion of the creek that lies within the proposed new mining boundary. It would be used to truck “overburden” — clear-cut trees, soil and other unusable material — from the existing Wake Stone operation to a storage pit at the proposed mine, which has yet to be permitted. 

In its application to DEQ’s Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources (DEMLR), the company claims bridge construction and other mining activities won’t harm the creek “for the foreseeable future.”

The proposed 106-acre mine would be 300 feet deep and located on a parcel known as the Oddfellows Tract. Although technically Wake and Durham counties and Raleigh and Durham own the land, the Airport Authority manages it. In turn, the authority  leased the land to Wake Stone, a move that opponents have challenged in court, albeit so far unsuccessfully. 

Counting roads and office buildings, a total of more than 225 acres, including 59 acres of trees, would be affected by the mine’s expansion.

Wake Stone says the bridge is necessary to address opponents’ concerns over the original plan to use the narrow Old Reedy Creek Road as a transportation route.

The company also told DEQ that a subcontractor has submitted a “No Impact Certification” regarding the bridge to Wake County Environmental Services. Wake County’s “concurrence” on the certification will be forwarded to DEMLR upon receipt, the application reads.

However, neither Wake County’s Environmental Services nor Planning departments have received a concurrence request from the company, said county spokesman John Hamlin. The county has not received an inquiry or application pertaining to the site.

To construct the bridge, Wake Stone would need a building permit from the county planning department, as well as a flood study from Environmental Services. “Neither of those [requests] have been received,” Hamlin said.

Crabtree Creek starts in Cary, runs north through Umstead Park and then roughly along I-440 before converging with the Neuse River in east Raleigh. Because of pollution, the creek is on the the EPA’s list of impaired waters. PCB contamination from Ward Transformer, a Superfund site near the airport, has polluted part of the creek, as has runoff from urban development. The creek lies within a 100-year plain and frequently overtops its banks during heavy rain.

The shaded area in purple shows the location of the bridge. which would connect the existing quarry (right of bridge) to the proposed one (left of bridge), To the west is Old Reed Creek Road; north, Umstead Park and south, I-40. (Map: Wake Stone application to DEQ)

Opponents of the project, including the Sierra Club and the Umstead Coalition, have asked DEQ to hold a public hearing on the proposed changes when it is safe to do so, in light of the pandemic, and to delay any final decision until afterward. 

(Since the governor’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March, DEQ has postponed or canceled its in-person public meetings for many proposed projects. The agency has extended the public comment period for several proposed projects, and it held one virtual meeting last week for log fumigation rules. Many North Carolinians, though, have pleaded with DEQ to extend the permitting process so that the public can meaningfully participate. DEQ is planning future virtual and in-person public hearings based on the governor’s phased re-opening order.)

Opponents question the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision that the bridge will “not directly impact” the creek and nearby wetland. A 100-foot buffer on either side of the creek will ostensibly protect the waterway; the buffer does not extend from the bank, though, but rather the center line of the creek.

DEQ spokesman Robert Johnson said that because of the Corps’s findings, the state is not required to certify the project with a water quality permit, known as a 401.

The bridge would also disrupt about a quarter-acre of buffer alongside the creek. The Neuse River Buffer Rules govern those impacts. 

Although those rules allow the bridge to be built without “mitigation” — meaning the harm caused would have to be offset with an environmental project elsewhere — construction still requires the DEQ’s authorization, wrote Cynthia Satterfield, acting director of the North Carolina Sierra Club, adding “it is allowed only if there is no practical alternative.”

Other permit modifications include the construction of earthen berms and retaining walls to minimize sound from the quarry operations that could disrupt visitors at Umstead Park. 

The company also plans to install several groundwater monitoring stations, including one near a private drinking water well that lies within 500 feet of the proposed new pit. The purpose of the monitoring is to ensure the household well, used by the Dunn family, doesn’t go dry as a result of quarry operations. Since the quarry pit will extend far below the water table operators will have to pump water out. Pumping can change groundwater flow and pull from neighboring wells.

However, there is no discussion in the permit application of possible harm to water quality. Randy Dunn told Policy Watch that no one from the company nor DEQ has contacted him or his wife, Tamara, about drinking water quality monitoring. It is important to test the drinking water before the project begins to get baseline data that can be used to compare with later testing.

DEQ spokesman Johnson said the agency has requested additional information from the company.

The proposed bridge presents yet another round of environmental issues associated with the quarry project. Earlier this year, the Airport Authority threatened to build an 8-foot fence topped with barbed wire to prevent trespassing on airport property. The property, which has “No Trespassing” signs posted about every 10 feet, flanks parts of Old Reedy Creek Road, commonly used by pedestrians and bicyclists to legally enter Umstead Park. 

Had it been built, the fence would have cross four large streams, 19 small streams and 29 temporary streams or ditches. 

In a letter dated Jan. 15, D. Reid Wilson, chief deputy secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which is over the parks system, told the Airport Authority that the proposed fence would create “a permanent eyesore and marring the look and ‘feel’ of the park.”

“It would damage stream banks, wetlands, and water quality downstream in Umstead Park,” Wilson wrote. It would also “block movements of wildlife, effectively trapping them between airport fences.”

The proposed fence, Wilson wrote, also “would greatly harm a fundamental purpose of the park, namely to provide public access to a natural setting for people to enjoy nature and improve their physical and mental health.”

For nearly two years, the proposed mine and the airport authority’s actions have inflamed opponents and raised questions about who has jurisdiction over airport land. The Umstead Coalition has argued the airport cannot lease the property for “non-airport purposes” without the consent of the four local governments in Durham and Wake counties.

The Airport Authority approved the lease as a way to raise more money for the airport’s operations and upgrades as part of its 2040 plan. Under the agreement, Wake Stone must pay $8.5 million over 25 years, plus 5.5% of net sales in annual royalties. If the lease is extended to 35 years, the company could pay the airport a total of $24 million through 2055 — although that scenario is only speculative.